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Purpose and uses
Ethnography had a long and distinguished heritage in classical literature , and the Germania fits squarely within the tradition established by authors from Herodotus to Julius Caesar. Tacitus himself had already written a similar—albeit shorter—essay on the lands and tribes of Britannia in his Agricola (chapters 10–13).
The Germania begins with a description of the lands, laws, and customs of the Germans (chapters 1–27); it then segues into descriptions of individual tribes, beginning with those dwelling closest to Roman lands and ending on the uttermost shores of the Baltic, among the amber gathering Aesti, the primitive and savage Fenni, and the unknown tribes beyond them. The work contains elements of both the moralising tract and the political pamphlet; these are not, however, its primary purposes. Tacitus probably wanted to stress the dangers that the barbarians posed to the Empire. He has a particular interest for the border with the Germans, both because he was persuaded that the people of the north were dangerous to the Empire and because the region offered the possibility to expand the empire.
Tacitus' descriptions of the German character are at times favorably contrasted to the Romans of his day. He holds the strict monogamy and chastity of German marriage customs worthy of the highest praise, in contrast to what he saw as the vice and immorality rampant in Roman society of his day (ch. 18), and he admires their open hospitality, their simplicity, and their bravery in battle. All of these traits were highlighted because of their similarity to idealized Roman virtues . These glowing portrayals made the work popular in Germany—especially among German nationalists and German Romantics—from the sixteenth century on. One should not, however, think that Tacitus' portrayal of Germanic customs is entirely favorable; he castigates the Germans for what he saw as their habitual drunkenness, laziness, and barbarism, among other traits .
Despite this bias, he does supply us with many names for tribes with which Rome had come into contact, although his information was not, in general, based on first-hand knowledge, and more recent research has shown that many of his assumptions were incorrect. In fact, contemporary historians debate whether all these tribes were really Germanic in the sense that they spoke a Germanic language - some of them, like the Batavii, may have been Celts. He is also to blame for the misnaming of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which did not quite take place in the saltus Teutoburgiensis, as he claimed in the Germania.
Sources of the book
Tacitus himself had never travelled in the German lands; all his information is second-hand at best. Ronald Syme supposed that Tacitus closely copied the lost Bella Germaniae of Pliny the Elder, since the Germania is in some places outdated: in its description of the Danubian tribes, says Syme, "they are loyal clients of the Empire. . . . Which is peculiar. The defection of these peoples in the year 89 during Domitian's war against the Dacians modified the whole frontier policy of the Empire." (p. 128). While Pliny may have been the primary source, scholars have identified others; among them are Caesar's Gallic Wars, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Posidonius, Aufidius Bassus, and numerous non-literary sources: interviews with traders and soldiers who had ventured beyond the Rhine and Danube borders.
- J.G.C. Anderson (ed.), Germania; (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1938)
- T.A. Dorey, 'Agricola' and 'Germania', in Tacitus (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969) (Studies in Latin Literature series)
- Alfred Gudeman, The Sources of the Germania of Tacitus, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 31. (1900), pp. 93-111
- Ronald Syme, Tacitus, vol. 1 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1958)
- Rodney Potter Robinson, The Germania of Tacitus (Middletown, Connecticut; American Philological Association, 1935) (textual and manuscript analysis)
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